Monday, 2 March 2015


“I think Afro-American theatre comes out of protest. It is a violent reaction to untenable conditions. Caribbean theatre has all the same reasons for the anger, but our memory is not the same kind.”

This remark from Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott is just one of the frank and provocative comments in Visions and Voices, a captivating book by Olivier Stephenson that comprises interviews with 14 Caribbean playwrights.

The 435-page volume includes conversations with Jamaica’s best known dramatists Trevor Rhone and Dennis Scott, Montserrat’s Edgar Nkosi White and Trinidad’s Errol Hill - “widely recognized as the father of the English-speaking Caribbean theatre”. And, off course, there is St. Lucian-born Walcott, the Caribbean’s most celebrated poet-playwright-artist. But only one female dramatist,  Jamaica’s Carmen Tipling, is featured in the collection, which detracts from its completeness.

Stephenson, a Jamaican-born, United States-based journalist and playwright himself, conducted the interviews in the 1970s and 1980s when he was actively involved in theatre in New York as a founding member of the Caribbean American Repertory Theatre.

Many of his peers (and “elders”) were also living in the U.S. or visiting at the time, which was a crucial period for the genre, full of new plays and a sense of community. After Stephenson’s interviews were completed, it would take more than 30 years for the book to be published, however. 

“Some publishers said it was too academic, while others said it wasn’t academic enough,” Stephenson recalls. Finally, England-based Peepal Tree Press stepped in and the book came out last year, with a preface by prize-winning writer Kwame Dawes.

Olivier Stephenson (photo: C. West)
In the interim, Walcott won the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature, and several of the playwrights have died; but their words still give a riveting picture of the Caribbean theatre world, with all the experiences, visions and goals. Walcott, now 85 years old, delivers some of the most insightful comments, positioning the Caribbean artist in an international context and criticizing the lack of state support for art and culture in the region.

“The body of Caribbean literature in the theatre, I think, is still minuscule,” he tells Stephenson. “And I think the reason for that is that there is not enough encouragement given to the development of the Caribbean actor and dancer in his or her native island.”

Since Walcott said those words, some things have naturally changed, with high-quality arts festivals now taking place across the Caribbean and several home-grown awards being launched. But much more needs to be achieved in the area of cultural policy.

“What stultifies and cripples in the Caribbean is the absence of that machine (to get plays made),” Walcott says. “So what you find is a lot of people having to give up writing plays because they can’t get them done.

“The total amount of unproduced plays in the Caribbean must be very, very large and God knows how many are good,” he adds.

Stephenson, in an interview with SWAN, said he completely agreed with Walcott’s assessment. “There is unquestionably not enough support,” he said. “A lot of lip service is paid to promoting the arts, but nothing is really done because that is how governments work.”

An interesting aspect of the interviews in Visions and Voices is the way Caribbean dramatists respond to comparisons between them and others in the sector. Of the criticism by some African-American playwrights that Caribbean - or West Indian - writers aren't angry enough, Walcott has this revealing response (worth repeating in its entirety):

Derek Walcott
Well, you see, I don’t think that a West Indian gets up in the morning saying, “I am black.” There is not an American Black who doesn't get up in the morning and think, even subliminally, “I am black and I have to face the day.” They get up in the morning with the feeling that something’s going to happen to them simply because they are black. That goes on in this country (the U.S.) still. It does not happen in the Caribbean. One does not get up in the morning and say, “Jesus Christ, I am black and some mother is going to be out for my ass today!” And that’s the difference. And because the Caribbean writer does not wake up in the morning with that kind of burden, he has the advantage of being able to develop a sense of universal anger, a certain perspective on the conditions of the Black or any Third World disadvantaged race.

One of the reasons why Caribbean plays are so banal - so many plays are just jokes, comedies, or backyard farces - is because that problem, the weight of being Black, does not exist for them; there’s no fight against “The Man”, against a visible oppressor. If anything, the Caribbean tendency is toward a political anger rather than a personal anger - towards a socialist or a Marxist perspective. You can’t help but be leftist in the Caribbean if you’re a writer - you have no choice, really.

When Stephenson asks why Walcott says this, the grand master of Caribbean letters replies: “Because of the poverty, of the violent contrast between the rich and the poor. And anybody with a simple sense of justice realizes that the system in the Caribbean is unjust for the majority of the people. So that kind of anger is there.

Whether one agrees with Walcott or not, Stephenson's book does give readers much to think about, and perhaps it will also encourage the public to see a Caribbean play the next time one is presented in their area. - A.M.

For more on Caribbean literature, see: